Far East Feast
Is the local appetite for tastes of the tropics merely gargantuan or is it actually insatiable? Many of 2008's most enjoyable restaurant openings (Marla's on 38th Street, Sen Yai Sen Lek, Hoang Thien Y) have featured food that's far more evocative of lemongrass and birds of paradise than snow plows and hot dish.
Bali, the newly opened Indonesian restaurant in the old Safari location at 14th and Nicollet, is the latest eatery to bring the fire of the tropics to our snow-blasted cities.
Operating on a street that offers Far Eastern fare ranging from the polished and thoroughly Westernized (such as Azia) to the gritty and thoroughly authentic (such as Hoang Thien Y), Bali manages to split the difference, serving up Indonesian soul food in a sleek and striking modern space. Even jaded diners will find surprises on Bali's menu, which offers dishes reminiscent of Thai fare yet strikingly distinct. A key example: lumpia ($5.50), about as pedestrian an Asian appetizer as you can imagine. But at Bali, the Indonesian/Filipino eggroll is re-imagined—crispier, more delicate, moister inside, and more flavorful, served up with a perfectly poised sweet-hot dipping sauce. It doesn't look like much on the menu, but it's emblematic of the kitchen's consistently fussy, take-no-prisoners attitude.
Happy-hour appetizers reward early diners. Four bucks buys four deviled eggs covered in a richly textured savory peanut sauce and fresh scallions, spicy but not overwhelming, yielding and warming—again, the old made new. A similar bundle of flavors (peanut sauce, scallions, sriracha hot sauce) makes an Indonesian version of loaded nachos a surprising delight.
Drinks are mixed with a similar skill. Bloody Mary fans should sample the restaurant's Scary Mary ($7), a peppery version of the classic morning beverage that tames the tomato tang and presents a smoky-spicy twist on the drink that kicks it up to a new level.
Cold-weather refugees who wander into Bali have come to the right place. An order of daging rendang ($13.75)—a deeply spiced but mild dish of beef and potatoes stewed in coconut milk—will knock the frost right out of your bones. Traditionally the dish employs a rich array of ingredients, including cloves, star anise, cardamom, lemon grass, and grated coconut, and the Bali version certainly packed a full load of flavor. The beef was pleasingly prepared, tender and juicy without being cooked into oblivion. Similarly simple yet eminently lovable was ikan bakar bumbu kecap ($14.50), a pair of grilled mackerel served perfectly charred, tender, flaky, and with a tangy hoisin-style sauce. You don't see a lot of whole fish (with heads on) in Minneapolis restaurants, which makes these that much more special.
It would be easy to lose track of Bali in the constant shuffle of Asian and Asian-inspired restaurants opening in the Twin Cities in general and on Nicollet specifically. That would be a shame. It's a rare and happy occasion when style and substance come together with as much harmony as they do at Bali.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.